It is Bank Holiday Monday, but W and I forgot that. We had a couple of ideas where we she wanted to dine, but they were all closed. Then inspiration hit – The Square. It has been on my list for some time and I had already made a couple of abortive reservations over the last few months, never managing to actually enjoy a meal there. I was excited.
A welcoming smile greeted us at the front door and our coats and bags were taken swift stewardship of before we were escorted over the black-and-white mosaic floor, past the wooden bar, fresh bouquets of orchids and pussy willows and large comfy couches, into the surprisingly large, very aptly square-shapen main dining area.
It is a modern space, quite stylish and cool, but discrete and sophisticated too. The back wall is burgundy and features three full length mirrors; the opposite wall faces onto the street outside, but large polished glass grills in front of each window limit outsiders view in. Both vellum-coloured flanks of the room are decorated with the most singular, arresting aspect of the décor: large, striking modern works of art in assertive colours by English artist Deborah Lanyon that enables The Square, if emptied, to easily impersonate a gallery. The room itself is sparsely filled with well-spaced and well-sized alternating square and circle tables, decked in pristine white starched tablecloths and taupe grey under-cloths and teamed with woollen dark russet and dark chestnut terracotta-patterned chairs. Tables are adorned with charger plates bearing Kandinsky-style Russian prints, originally from Marco Pierre White’s Hyde Park Hotel; sleek slim vases of blossoming pink rosebuds; and beautiful Christofle silverware. The colour theme is dominated by fine vanillas and creams contrasted against rich, warm browns: an immaculate white ceiling and light walls are framed by a dark wood, herringbone-parquet floor. Lighting, from recessed spotlights, randomly dotted lamps and almost-Oriental mini pendant lanterns, is quite bright. The minimalist almost functional interior educes an elegant and refined atmosphere, typified by the smart black formal attire of the staff.
The first question I asked upon our prompt receipt of the menus was whether Chef Howard was cooking tonight. He was not. Just my luck – the chef who is never away from his stove, happens to be away tonight. It turns out another chef is in charge and though his name eludes me, I know it is not Robert Weston, Howard’s number two. So, a mysterious number three is at the helm? Sounds ominous, but I am more disappointed at the current AA Chef’s Chef of the Year’s absence than at having monsieur trois cooking my dinner.
You see, Philip Howard, a softly spoken, self-effacing man who eschews the media spotlight in favour of actually running his kitchen and helping nurture young culinary talent, is acknowledged as one of the country’s best cooks – some achievement considering he is an Englishman cooking French cuisine and thus ‘competing’ against French chefs in their own jardin gastronomique.
An original path to Michelin stardom makes Howard’s story an engrossing one. First discovering cookery whilst studying microbiology at Kent University, upon graduating he almost went into pharmaceuticals, but decided instead to spend a year travelling, which culminated in a summer spent cooking in the Dordogne. Returning to London, he apprenticed with Roux Restaurants, catering in the City, but six months making sandwiches left him doubting his choices until an opportune move into directors’ dining. Here he relished the leadership, fast pace and fast learning but, ambitious by nature, nine months later, he was ready to move on. So one night, after dinner at Harvey’s (Marco Pierre White’s first fine dining restaurant), having asked to meet Marco vis-à-vis, Howard asked for a job. He got one. Aged 23, he became Harvey’s newest chef de partie. Only nine months more and he had verbally agreed to become MPW’s sous chef, when an unforgivable service cost Howard his job on the spot. Undeterred, he joined another great British chef of the time, Simon Hopkinson at Bibenbdum, spending a year under him. During this time, he and Marco made up and when MPW’s business partner, Nigel Platts-Martin, decided to open a new restaurant, he put Howard’s name forward for head chef. Thus, in 1991, with no formal training, cooking professionally for only three years and never having even been a sous chef, Howard had his own restaurant.
Though inexperienced, he was certainly not unknowledgeable: as a scientist, he understood the chemical make-up of food; his Dordogne experience had fostered a love for the hearty, lavish cuisine of south-west France; MPW taught him to appreciate elegant, sophisticated French cooking; whilst under Hopkinson, he learnt to impress with flavour and simplicity, instead of simply presentation. It took him just three years to win a Michelin star and this was with an “out of control” kitchen and menus featuring a “bizarre mismatch of things, many which [he’d] never cooked before”; he would decide each morning what to cook for dinner that evening. By 1998, finally finding his rhythm, he was awarded a second star and in 2001 moved The Square to its larger, current residence, where this story unfolds.
Sophia, our serveuse ecossaise, guided us through the menu. And what a beautifully written menu it always is. I am impressed and frustrated; impressed by the delicious dish descriptions Howard constantly composes, but frustrated by how difficult he has made it to order. The food is distinctively modern and seriously French, boasting classical ingredients and combinations of flavour and employing techniques he has refined over time to fashion his own brand of imaginative, stylish and cultured cuisine bourgeoise. The menu is also markedly seasonal; Howard divides the year into five seasons, making a sincere effort to source the choicest produce, locally whenever possible. Eventually, with Sophia’s advice on board and her making more than one trip to the kitchen to enquire whether some of our little demands could be tolerated, we were decided. Starters are the strongest part of the menu (Howard himself confesses), but being our first time here, we immediately plumped for the two signature entrées, followed by three mains and two desserts.
Amuse Bouche 1: Parmesan Sablé; Cornetto of Foie Gras; Beetroot Flag Stuffed with Goat’s Cheese; Dill & Smoked Salmon Roulade; Herb Risotto Beignet; and Anchovy Frazzle. A custom-made wooden block was presented loaded with an assortment of five different dainties. First off was a cheesy, creamy, crumbly parmesan sablé; then a crisp cornet containing a rich foie gras mousse. Next, an amusing soft beet ‘flag’ held strong goat’s cheese balanced with balsamic vinegar. A smooth, fresh roll of smoky salmon and almost-aniseed-flavoured dill followed. A warm, crunchy rice ball fritter was greaseless and molten in the middle and a crisp straw, mildly infused with anchovy, completed the canapés.
Amuse Bouche 2: Sweet Corn Bavarois with Duck Jelly Consommé. A second amuse of thick, creamed sweet corn, topped with an intense duck jelly, light tarragon foam and girolle crème and decorated with a fine pastry tuile, succeeded the first. The idea of matching the sugary corn, rich duck, bittersweet herb and earthy mushroom was decent, but the individual flavours were not clear and distinct enough, making this rather forgettable.
Les Pains: French Baguette; Walnut-Raisin; and Brown Bread. The three varieties offered were each beautifully baked and delightfully detailed. The baguette was firm and very crunchy with nicely toasted tips. The nutty-fruit bread was even better with a good crust, moist middle and excellent, not too sweet taste. I also enjoyed the dense, wholesome brown. Most appealingly, throughout dinner the bread was consistently served warm; a simple, but significant touch. Both salted and unsalted butter arrived, intricately moulded, on flat whale-shaped frosted glass tiles.
Entrée 1: Lasagne of Cornish Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam. Alternating layers of circular cuts of crab and pasta came immersed in a thick, basil-infused langoustine and scallop mousseline and surrounded by a foam bath of champagne. The crab was fresh and sweet; the pasta, al dente. A serious, herby bisque-like shellfish sauce lay over the lasagne whilst an ethereally light and refreshing, coral-coloured champagne froth filled the bowl. This was delicate and airy, but buttery-rich and bursting with deep flavours; it was liquid luxury.
Entrée 2: Sauté of Scottish Langoustine Tails with parmesan Gnocchi and an Emulsion of Potato and Truffle. Three totem poles, each constructed with its own lush langoustine showpiece topped with crispy onion ringlets, were set on individual parmesan pasta dumpling plinths doused in a plashet of potato-truffle emulsion; a liberal garnish of girolle purée accompanied the shellfish spires. The juicy langoustines tails were firm and bouncy, contrasting nicely with the creamy, soft gnocchi and crunchy onions. The already well-balanced, classic combination of salty-sweet shellfish and earthy mushroom was further enhanced with robust, musty truffle and subtly sweet onion. Another excellent dish.
Plat Principal 1: “Bouillabaisse” with Sardine Chantilly. Bouillabaisse is something both W and I find irresistible so, after our starters, we snuck in one order to share between us. Superb servings of a selection of fish – sea bass, gurnard and monkfish – together with a scallop, a squid ink ravioli and spoonful of scampi mousseline sat on a warm pepperade of capsicum with a tuile cracker of anchovy paste. Tableside, a broth of more fish – sea bass, red mullet and John Dory – and aioli was poured over the seafood medley. The thick fillets of fish were tasty and well cooked, bar the slightly overdone sea bass. The scallop was good, pasta correct and anchovy pleasantly powerful. However, the pepperade was much too salty and almost inedible; the sauce was seasoned distinctly with garlic, but struggled to offer anything more; and there was not a trace of one essential bouillabaisse ingredient, saffron, whose spicy sharpness was surely missed. The speech marks within this dish’s title ought to have been a clue not to expect a “traditional” version of this classic and later we were told the objective here was to use a simple sauce to showcase quality fish; it showed.
Plat Principal 2: Fish of the Day – Roast Fillet of Turbot with Parmesan Gnocchi, Cep Mushroom, Golden Beetroot, Jerusalem Artichoke and Baby Spring Onion. A pleasing piece of roasted turbot, on a bed of parmesan gnocchi, porcini and artichoke slices, small golden beets and their wilted leaves and whole bulbs of baby spring onion, was lightly bathed in a golden yellow beurre blanc bath. The flaky fish, cooked until its pristine white flesh had tanned lovely ochre, had retained all its deliciously mild taste. It was complemented by smooth pasta, crunchy beetroot, spinach-like beet leaves and nutty artichoke. Earthy, creamy ceps, mushroom royalty, matched the meaty, refined turbot. Of special note were the sweet little onions, which dissembled in the mouth delightfully.
Plat Principal 3: Breast of Gressingham Duck with a Tarte Fine of Caramelised Endive and Glazed Figs. The perfectly pink duck, resting in a reduction of its own juices, was dished with a warm tarte fine of endive, fig quenelle and orange purée. The tender, juicy duck had a good sticky, sweet skin and rich sauce. The short pastry crumbled nicely and countered the bitter, peppery leaves, whilst the opposingly saccharine fig confit and bitter orange balanced agreeably. Textures also played their part with the soft duck, flaky tarte and grainy jam working well together. These bold flavours and beautiful breast of duck were impressive.
Pre-dessert: Sweet Tomato & Vanilla. Preceding desserts was a shot glass, filled with a base of vanilla and sweet tomato yoghurt below a thin layer of apple coulis and rounded off with blackcurrant mousse, coupled with a warm sugar beignet. The concentrated fruity berry and apple cut through the thick, homemade sour yoghurt. The fluffy dough nugget was excellent; super light, sweet and handy for dipping into the shot glass.
Dessert 1: Warm Roasted Pears with Tiramisu, ‘Dulce de Leche’ Ice Cream and Salted Caramel Nougatine. Warm roast pear halves were dotted around a circular tiramisu sponge and accompanied by a feuille-wrapped cappuccino crème, dollop of dulce de leche ice cream and dense dash of coffee jelly. The dish was also sprinkled with biscuit crumbs and splashes of salty caramel nougatine. The tiramisu, though of decent consistency, was rather too full with rum for my liking and the ice cream and caramel forgettable. That said, the pears, soft, sweet and moist, were nice, as was the inclusion of cappuccino and strong coffee. Excepting these little highlights, the flavours were weak, indistinct and disconcerted.
Dessert 2: Fondant of Chocolate with Almond Milk Purée and Caramelised Almond and Orange Ice Cream. A dark cocoa fondant covered in thick, warm chocolate sauce was served with an almond-orange ice cream sitting upon burnt crumble chips; splurges of almond milk purée and a white chocolate tuile adorned the plate. The cake was light and moist with a molten liquid middle, with the chocolate itself delightfully intense and rich, but again, the rest of the dish failed to make an impact.
Petit Fours 1: Dairy-free Caramel Truffles and Orangettes. We forwent coffee, but welcomed these after-dinner treats, which took the form of dusty, well-formed truffles filled with mild caramel centres and chewy, chocolate-dipped matchsticks of orange rind; both of which had been made without dairy (probably more as a proof of skill, rather than to improve the taste).
Petit Fours 2: Assortment of Jellies – Apple Cider & Vanilla Jelly; Pineapple & Blueberry Jelly; Confit of Grapefruit; Turkish Delight; and Raspberry Summer Roll. In true haute-cuisine mode, the gifts kept coming. A spray of small jelly lollipops in five flavours finished off dinner. These tangy treats included a particularly memorable sweet, subtle grapefruit; sour, creamy Turkish delight; and sugary Swiss roll – although, all tasted fresh, fruity and distinct.
Service throughout the meal was good enough to convince me all the FOH problems I recently read about have been successfully resolved. The staff were polite, inquisitive, on the spot when required, but discreet at all other times; we were always accommodated and never rushed. Sophia, in particular, proved able, attentive and charming.
Without a doubt, the cooking is considered and there is talent in the kitchen – members of Howard’s brigade took all the podium places at the last Young Chef Awards – but I cannot help but have mixed feelings. Entrées were excellent and mains generally good, but desserts disappointed and this gradual diminuendo of enjoyment has no doubt prejudiced my final thoughts against the meal; I am sure that had we finished on a high, having started unimpressively, I would now feel very differently. After all, there were plenty of positive points: produce throughout was first rate, seasonal and fresh; if I ignore the bouillabaisse, technique tonight was faultless; if I also disregard desserts, then the dishes were all well-crafted and satisfying.
Therefore, I shall not be writing The Square off just yet. I will return, but with some simple caveats: first, I will have to confirm that Chef Howard will be behind the stove; and secondly, I will stick to fruity or pastry puddings (I have read somewhere these are more the kitchen’s forte). After all, in spite of everything, I know that sumptuous, innovative dishes, rich raw materials, serious flavours and precision cooking are all the necessary ingredients for a legitimately indulgent experience – an experience I would savour.
6-10 Bruton Street, W1J 6PU
tel: 020 7495 7100
nearest tube: Green Park